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Exactitude 2020: A Five College Architecture Symposium



Convened by: Pari Riahi, Assistant Professor with the Department of Architecture at UMass Amherst, Michael T. Davis, Professor and Chair of Architectural Studies at Mount Holyoke College, and Laure Katsaros, Professor of French at Amherst College



“The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired and fear,

like a frail emergency bridge thrown over the abyss.”

~Italo Calvino, “Exactitude,” Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988)


As contemporary architecture faces a transitional time, a constellation of challenges dominates teaching and practice: a built environment that needs as much reconfiguring as new building, if not more; novel and complex construction techniques that must be absorbed and orchestrated by architects; and an array of digital media that have dramatically shifted established norms of thought and action. These three challenges, which emerged in the late twentieth century and have persisted until this day, share a common thread: they all call for an architectural practice that is more precise, more quantifiable, and more complex. The demand for greater accuracy, however, has undermined other key aspects of architecture, most notably its creative dimension. Sources, intervening agents, and platforms form an increasingly complex nexus that has challenged the centrality of the architect’s position as the main creative and conceptual force behind a project. Filarete once described architecture as the result of an intimate and intense relation between the client as father and the architect as nurturing mother. Today such a relation has become virtually impossible because of the multiple agents involved in the design process from conception to realization.

To counter the ever-growing need for precision and efficiency, we propose to revisit Italo Calvino’s celebrated discussion of exactitude in his collection of essays Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Calvino lists three possible meanings of exactitude: as a precise and well-crafted plan for work; as evoking memorable visual images; and as a language “as precise as possible both in choice of words and in the expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.” He then goes on to describe the inner conflict in his writing between two divergent paths toward a poetics of exactitude. One path takes him to the world of “bodiless rationality” through vectors of force, theorems, and projections, while the other “goes through a space crammed with objects and attempts to create a verbal equivalent of that space by filling the page with words.” If architecture today, in all its complexity, wishes to retain its creativity within an ever-shifting practice, looking into these formulations of exactitude may be the way forward. We will ask whether architectural theory and practice should aspire to the “bodiless rationality” discussed by Calvino or attempt to find a tangible equivalent to “the density and continuity of the world.” Our goal is to inspire conversation within three thematic constellations pertaining to different understandings of exactitude.

In which ways can the creative process of architecture respond to the contemporary demand for greater exactitude on phenomenal, formal, spatial, and tectonic levels while also meeting its ethical obligations and exercising its imaginative capacities?

How do recent developments in the field activate the architect’s imagination to invent new images, concepts, and ideas? Is it still possible for the architect to be defined as an individual artist, with his or her “signature style,” when the medium involves so many layers of technology and collaborative work?

Ultimately, could today’s challenges contribute to the development of a new language of architecture, one that would combine the poetic imagination, meaningful action, and a sustained pattern for practice that is relevant, artistic, and tangible?


Each symposium has its accompanying edited volume, published by UMass Press. Exactitude: On Precision and Play in Contemporary Architecture was published in June 2022.  


Symposium at a Glance

Friday, Oct. 2nd


Barbara Krauthamer: Dean's Welcome Address

Pari Riahi, Laure Katsaros, Michael Davis: Introduction to Exactitude 2020

Chris Benfey: Exactitude and the Weather

Alejandro Zaera-Polo: New Narratives in the After-Post-Truth Age: Posthumanism, Precision and Conservation

Mark Wigley: The Intolerances of Architecture

Eric Höweler: Verify in Field

Francesca Hughes: Filthy Logics: in Praise of Pointlessness


See complete Oct. 2nd schedule

Saturday, Oct. 3rd


Stephen Schreiber: Chair's Welcome Address

Pari Riahi, Laure Katsaros, Michael Davis: Introduction to Exactitude 2020

Alicia Imperiale: Machine Consequences

Antoine Picon: Humans, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Design

Sunil Bald: Building in the Floating World

Teresa Stoppani: The In-Exact Words of Architecture

LOT-EK, Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano with Thomas de Monchaux: Stacks 

Cynthia Davidson: A Conversation

See complete Oct. 3rd schedule